Just Say “No” To Free Client Work


Just Say "No" To Free Client WorkJonathan C. Zaback, Chief Growth & Marketing Officer, Principal, Vaya, LLC

I have yet to meet a client that didn’t want some sort of work for free. With that said, it is up to all of you reading this to decline doing free work. Because the moment you decide to do free work you are cheapening both your personal brand and the brand of your business. And clients can smell blood in the water when you agree to free work. Because the moment you agree to do free work you are sending a message that you are desperate for the business.

Additionally, work should not start until a wire payment is confirmed and in the bank. A business relationship is not real until the money is in the bank. By doing this you set a strong precedent both with your clients and employees. You need to be confident and realize that if you are in the room and asked to do work that you have the right to be paid. Yes, we are all used to the idea that we need to earn our credibility, our expertise, and our reputation. But when you have a proven track record, get the money before you start the work.

Far too many people out there are either giving away their services for free or undervaluing themselves. Don’t short change yourself because you think people aren’t willing to pay. They are and they will if they see that you’re worth it. I am constantly investing in myself so that I can give my clients the absolute best. Additionally, time is money. So if I’m taking time from my busy schedule that could be better spent in other ways, I expect to be paid. Period.

If you have a problem asking for compensation, realize that the effect of not getting paid extends beyond you. What type of message am I sending my colleagues about how they should conduct themselves in the future or estimate their own worth? Of course, I’m not talking about charity and pro bono type work, which is an exception; I am talking about freely giving away our expertise that you’ve worked hard to build.

I highly recommend keeping it simple when declining. I feel the best way to bow out of free work without burning bridges is to simply just say “no.” Don’t have verbal diarrhea about the reasons or you will just come across as weak. I suggest something along the lines of, “I’m flattered that you’re seeking my advice (or services), but unfortunately I’m not taking on additional clients at the moment.” This way you are clearly declining the request, but you’re also assuming the best in people by responding to them as if they were seeking to be your client.

Doing free works takes your eye off the ball and the ultimate prize. By not being compensated for your work it means you are leaving money on the table somewhere else. It sets a bad precedent, will give you a bad reputation both internally and externally, and it will be very hard to rebound from the damage.


About the Author: Zaback is a 20+ year veteran of the marketing and technology industries. He is an expert in tackling the challenges and opportunities associated with making sure a company positively engages key internal and external stakeholders. His mindful and thoughtful approach has made him a magnet for influential leaders to help them problem-solve the most pressing issues facing their leadership tenures. He has advised individuals ranging from the presidents of Israel and Iceland to the C-suites of Bank of America, Accenture, Marsh & McLennan, and many other Fortune 100 companies. But at the core, his obsession is delivering positive results across the board while balancing the changing moods and priorities of consumers, clients, shareholders, boards of directors, and the C-suite. 

1 Comment

  1. Ford Kanzler on at 11:59 AM

    Expecting free service or similarly, slow or no paying clients are extremely demotivating when I’ve experienced it. Guessing this is felt by others as well. Do clients really want to lower their PR agency’s enthusiasm? Would they do that to their company’s attorney?
    Having a clear understanding with client leadership, e.g. CEO, about payment is essential. Also suggest getting to know whoever manages accounts payable on a first-name basis. They can and often will help expedite payment when the responsible manager isn’t paying full attention or is “out of the office.”
    A clause in the service agreement about payment terms is also valuable. Perhaps a large PR shop can deal with 60- or 90-day terms. As a small business, I require and get agreement to 15 days, or work very quickly comes to a grinding halt and the CEO or key client contact is made aware of why.
    My favorite question for slow-paying clients when timely payment is a problem, is, “How many times do you have to ask for your paycheck?”

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